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Napoleon almost conquered the world. Vincent van Gogh's paintings sell for millions of dollars. Danny Glover has starred in many popular action movies.  Marion Clignet was a silver medalist in cycling at the 1996 Olympics.

What do these people have in common? Besides being famous and successful, each one of them has (or had) a condition called epilepsy.

It's a strange word, isn't it? It comes from a Greek word meaning "to hold or seize," and "seizures" are what happen to people with epilepsy. People who have epilepsy may have seizures only once in a while or every day.

What Is a Seizure?
It's a sudden, uncontrollable event that happens when there is unusual electrical activity in the brain. You might also hear a seizure called a convulsion, fit, or spell. Here is what happens:

Brain cells send out electrical impulses that travel along nerves to the rest of the body. These impulses tell the muscles to move. If too many brain cells send impulses at the same time, it causes an overload. When that happens, the muscles tighten and relax rapidly or stop moving completely. This is a seizure. When the cells stop sending signals, the seizure stops.

What Happens to a Person During a Seizure?
When people think of a seizure, they usually think of someone falling down unconscious, shaking, and maybe wetting himself. You might have seen this type of seizure on TV. Some people also may throw up, drool, or lose control of their bowels.

This type of seizure usually lasts for several minutes. When it stops, the person may feel sleepy and won't remember what happened. Even though a seizure may look scary, it's not painful.

Not everyone who has a seizure looks like what you see on TV. Some people have staring spells that look like daydreaming or some jerking movements in one part of the body.

Some people used to think that a person having a seizure could swallow his tongue. They thought that if a person was having a seizure, you had to put something in his mouth to keep him from swallowing his tongue. This isn't true - nobody can swallow his tongue, and you shouldn't put anything in a person's mouth during a seizure.

If you see someone having a seizure, you might be able to help. You can't do anything to stop the seizure, but maybe you can prevent the person from hurting himself.

When Do Seizures Happen?
Most seizures occur without warning, although some people have a funny feeling or a weird smell or taste right before a seizure. This is called an aura. Others find that certain things may bring on a seizure, like not getting enough sleep or playing video games.

How Do You Get Epilepsy?
Very often, doctors cannot explain why a person has epilepsy. But they do know that epilepsy is not contagious - you can't "catch" it from somebody. Epilepsy is not passed down through families ("inherited") in the same way that blue eyes or brown hair are. But if somebody's mom or dad or brother or sister has epilepsy, then he has a slightly higher risk for epilepsy than somebody who doesn't have any family members with the disorder.

Do Lots of People Have It?
Almost two million Americans have epilepsy. People with epilepsy often feel like they're the only ones who have it, but it is more common than you think.  To understand how common it is, imagine a football stadium with 80,000 fans in the stands. About 1,000 of them would have epilepsy.

Epilepsy is found in boys and girls and people of all races. Seizures can start at any age, but most of the time they begin before age 15 or after age 65.

How Do People Know if They Have Epilepsy?
If a person has a seizure, his doctor will do some tests (like a CAT scan or an EEG) that will look at his brain structure and measure his brain waves. Blood tests may also be done. These tests can help the doctor know if a person might have more seizures and if he needs to be treated. Most of the time, though, the tests do not show anything. And half of the kids who have one seizure never have any more of them.

How Is Epilepsy Treated?
Most people who have epilepsy - about 80 percent - can have their seizures controlled by taking medicines. Sometimes, if the medicine does not work, doctors may operate on the brain or put some kids on a special diet (called a "ketogenic" diet).

Epilepsy does not get worse as people get older. In fact, many kids with epilepsy get better as they get older and can stop taking medicine.

Does Having Epilepsy Mean That Someone Is Different?
People with epilepsy are not dumb or weird or dangerous, and people who have it don't "look funny."  Most people with epilepsy lead normal and happy lives. They go to school and get jobs. They get married and have children. Epilepsy does not limit a person's ability - just remember the famous people who have it or have had it.

There are many more things that people with epilepsy can do than there are things they can't do. Most people with epilepsy can play sports, although some contact sports (like boxing) may be off limits. Driving is allowed for people whose seizures are under control. People with epilepsy should be careful in places where they could get hurt if they have a seizure, like a high place or in the bathtub. But just because they may not be able to take baths doesn't mean they go around looking like Pigpen. Showers are OK!

Kids who have epilepsy should be treated like everyone else. If their schoolmates give them a hard time, it's because they don't understand the condition. Maybe they were frightened when they saw a kid with epilepsy have a seizure.

If you know a lot about epilepsy, you won't be frightened, and you can explain it to your friends. The more they know, the less frightened they will be. Then they will see that kids with epilepsy are no different than they are. 

  • Take a deep breath and stay calm.
  • Place the person on the softest surface around - a rug or sofa if you are inside or on the grass if you are outside.
  • Lay the person on his side. In case he throws up, he won't swallow it.
  • Do not try to restrain him.
  • Stay with the person until he regains awareness.
  • If the seizure lasts more than five minutes, call 911 for medical help.

Reviewed by: Kim Rutherford, MD
Date reviewed: May 2001
Originally reviewed by:
Winslow Borkowski, MD

Source:KidsHealth is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida. Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children